We continue our popular Happy Young Readers series with Barbara Else’s five recommended fantasy reads (plus a bonus recommendation) for determined girls. For further reading tips for the young readers in your life, see David Hill’s Top 5 junior fiction for shy boys and the Reading Doctor’s regular reading advice column.
Fantasy is a significant genre. By setting aside normal constraints and inventing other rules and modes of being, the best fantasy novels help a young reader to gain perspective on human nature. They encourage the development of imagination and lateral thinking.
1. Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Coraline, small for her age but adventurous, has just moved with her parents into a new set of apartments. A neighbour warns her: ‘Don’t go through the door.’ Of course, Coraline ignores this. Through the door in a flat identical to hers, she meets her Other Mother who has black buttons instead of eyes. Coraline uses her wits and courage to rescue her real parents as well as the ghosts of three children and to save herself from having black buttons sewn in place of her own eyes. The novel is scary in the most delicious way with a cast of crazy and appealing characters.
2. The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis
The final of the Narnia Chronicles, this novel won the Carnegie Medal in 1957. It has always been one of my favourites. In an exciting plot, Jill, who first appeared in The Silver Chair, returns to Narnia and uses her Girl Guide skills to help rescue Jewel, the unicorn. She plays an important part in bringing the series to a thought-provoking conclusion.
This must be one of the best science fiction novels of all time for children. It focuses on difficult ideas such as the tesseract – the wrinkle in time – and on the importance of family. Fourteen-year-old Meg is the only one who can save her super-intelligent five-year-old brother from the grip of IT, a disembodied brain with telepathic powers. I know many grown-ups who still gasp with the remembered pleasure of reading this novel.
4. Diary of a Frog by Sally Sutton
Is the froglet diary-writer a drama queen? No way! But she’s beautiful, with the right number of warts. And she’s so talented! Surely she’s the obvious choice for Human Princess in the school play of The Frog Prince …? Oh no! She is only the understudy… Part of a series of ‘diaries’ by Sutton, this is a very funny story for newer readers. It’s also subtly packed with factual information about New Zealand’s Hochstetter frogs.
I cheated with this one. The pink and silver cover makes the book look like girlie fantasy but the story is based on the childhood of a real-life princess of Jordan who is an Olympic rider. Haya doesn’t want to dress like a princess and behave like a lady. She wants to win races and have the Royal Stables team take the King’s Cup from the Bedouin Mounted Police regiment. The novel is beautifully written – gripping, by turns poignant, funny and exciting. I’d ditch the dust jacket and find plain wrapping so a determined girl can design a cover that better represents the story and have boys read it too.
6. The Sundew Stalks. Book 2, The Fly Papers seriesby Johanna Knox. Since I cheated with that last novel, I’ll get back on topic and sneak in another. Tora de Ronde is a particularly focused young person. In a crazy action adventure she has to help a captive scientist rescue mutant carnivorous plants and outwit a pair of wrestlers. Knox has pulled off an astonishing technical coup. The second book in The Fly Papers series, this novel covers exactly the same time frame as the first, The Flytrap Snaps, this time with a girl as the protagonist. It’s great fun. Readers don’t need to know the first book but could very happily search it out while waiting for the publication of the third.
Barbara Else is a playwright and fiction writer, and has also worked as a literary agent, editor and fiction consultant. Known for her sharp humour, Else won the Victoria University Writer’s Fellowship in 1999, and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in 2005. Her second novel in the 'Tales of Fontania' series is The Queen and the Nobody Boy (Gecko Press, 2012) won the Junior Fiction award in the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. You can find out more about Barbara Else in her Book Council Writers file.